Fresh from a literary coup with the publication of The Bookseller of Kabul in 2002 (for which she gained a big following and a bigger lawsuit), Åsne Seierstad returns to characteristic edge-of-the-seat reporting when she goes to Iraq to report on a country on the brink of disaster. Baghdad in the run up to the invasion by the US-led alliance in 2003 was where it’s at, and just where there is impending doom was where she wanted to be. Disaster, for Seierstad, is not a bomb falling on her head or a suicide bomber exploding near her, in the heart of the Bible lands, but to be sent packing because of an expired visa.
A thinly-veiled allusion of herself as the Scandinavian Scheherazade, Seierstad, 41, draws parallel with her one hundred and one days with A Thousand and One Nights. Tweaking the plot somewhat, Saddam Hussein, thru his loyal cohorts, becomes the Shah whose power resides in making sure foreign correspondents and journalists toe the line with cleaned up stories they file back home, in exchange for a few more days in Baghdad. Combining skill and chutzpah, plus money and influence of Scandinavian press, Seierstad stayed for over three months, dodging her minder as deftly as she dodges danger, and sent home harrowing real-time images of falling bombs felling people. A Hundred and One Days is a courageous account of a journalist of a city under siege, where the certainty of scoop trumps the probability of perdition. (Although some press people had had a brush with violence, none was seriously hurt.)
A native of Norway and its most celebrated and controversial correspondent yet whose stints in Serbia and Afghanistan have yielded With Their Backs to the World: Portraits from Serbia and The Bookseller of Kabul, respectively, Seierstad now surveys another country unraveling at the seams: bare essentials like soap, sugar and coffee had to be rationed, and the populace can just as easily succumb to mortar as to Saddam’s megalomania–an office at the Press Center can have as many as 16 different framed images of Saddam–and she is filled with emotion. With sadness and pride, the award-winning journalist touts Baghdad as the crucible of civilization, and the Tigris and the Euphrates, the “starting point of everything” (10). She writes:
Even the Flood had its origins here: the land between the two rivers–Mesopotamia. The Tigris is a treacherous river. Under layers of mud, on the river plain, archaeologists have uncovered towns. The cataclysms led to the accounts of God’s judgment, the Flood that covered the whole world. The waters of the Tigris made the Hanging Gardens bloom. The Garden of Eden was somewhere near; the Tower of Babel within easy reach. From this country, Abraham and Sarah were exiled. (10; italics in the original)
Continuing on the same vein, she writes of Baghdad which, she was told, was the “centre of the globe five thousand years ago” (22); where culture and science prospered, and the Sumerians and Babylonians the first ones to divide the circle into 360 degrees and the day into 24 hours, and the world owes Iraq its beauty and history. Imperialist armies like the Turks, the Mongols and the British had nonetheless run this country to the ground and many of its material riches spirited away to Louvre and other European museums.
But she stops short of assigning blame–and correctly–probably realizing that she was partly collusive. Be that as it may, A Hundred and One Days succeeds (because authentic) in providing us readers a peep into this “rogue” nation’s inner workings before, during and after the siege, within the security of our own homes.
Seierstad, Åsne. A Hundred and One Days. Trans. Ingrid Christophersen. UK: Virago, 2003.